Lila, by Marilynne Robinson

by Robert A. Parker

This 2014 work was a difficult novel for me to get into. It is the story of a poor migrant, Lila, from the time she is stolen as a baby until she has a baby of her own. But the way author Robinson tells this woman’s story is frustrating. Even though its theme—of love and human understanding, of sacrifice and steadfastness, of moral and spiritual sanctity—is everything I could ask for.

For the story of Lila is structured like a stream of consciousness novel. That is, the narrative moves back and forth, as if in Lila’s mind. But the telling is in the third person. We see into Lila’s mind, but we are not inside Lila’s mind. But even though this approach did not appeal to me, I persevered, because of the critical reputation that all of Robinson’s novels have earned.

This is also largely a story of the underside of life as well as a story of loneliness. As a baby, Lila is stolen by Doll, a woman she remembers fondly throughout the novel. She is grateful to her because Doll saved her from a life of poverty and degradation. She also has fond memories because Doll was a good woman, and educated Lila to be one as well. Her one regret is that she does not know what happened to Doll, after the woman decided that abandoning her would be for Lila’s own good.

There is, of course, a connection between this novel and two of Robinson’s earlier novels, Gilead and Home. Gilead is about a minister, John Ames, and is comprised of a letter he is writing to his son. Home concerns Ames and his friend, a fellow minister, Robert Boughton, who also lives in Gilead. And Lila is the story of the young woman who married the elderly John Ames, and is the mother of the son the minister is writing to in the first novel.

Yes, the connection to the other novels adds depth to one’s understanding, but this work nevertheless stands on its own. It is about Lila and her troubled experience, one of suffering, abandonment, and rescue. However, these are not easy experiences to identify with. And this further hindered my entering into and identifying with this character.

Which was compounded by Lila’s mind jumping around in time. Indeed, so much so that I was confused at times if we were in the present or in the past, and, if in the past, what period in that past. For there are times in which she is in Doll’s care. There are times in which she is surviving in a whorehouse. There are times in which she is in flight, and times in which she arrives in the small Iowa town of Gilead, where she knows no one.

In Gilead where she meets the elderly John Ames. Whereupon, two events took me surprise. And, for me, lacked conviction. Not that the two marry, but that, first, she proposes to him out of thin air, and he considers it for about a page, and then accepts her suggestion. Because, apparently, he is lonely, like her, having lost his wife many decades earlier. Joan Acocella explains this further in The New Yorker. She explains that Lila proposes because she is bold and because she fears she will be abandoned again, just has she has been before. While he is both drawn to her boldness and sees, with her, an end to his own loneliness.

The second development that surprised me was Lila’s becoming pregnant. This event is important to her and is what sustains both her and the novel through its final pages. But there has been no suggestion that love has originally motivated them. It is more that marriage has been convenient for them both. There is a scene in which they are in bed together, she seeking his comfort, but it is after her pregnancy begins. It would have been helpful if this circumspect author had inserted that scene a little earlier.

However, the affection between Lila and the minister is real. We accept that they share much, even come to love one another, and we watch their devotion to their child engage them equally. Moreover, their connection, their humanity, is deepened, when they acknowledge that they do not completely understand each other. Indeed, the final pages are filled with both a human and a spiritual love, as these two sympathetic creatures share with the child the short time, given the minister’s age, they realize they will have together as a family.

Diane Johnson sums up this novel’s seriousness in The New York Times: “Central to all the novel’s characters are matters of high literary seriousness—the basic considerations of the human condition; the moral problems of existence; the ache of being abandoned; the struggles of the aging; the role of the Bible and God in daily life.” These are indeed the hallmarks of Robinson’s earlier works, and are welcome here in a literary world that seldom acknowledges them.

At the end of her review, Johnson says: “Lila is not so much a novel as a meditation on morality and psychology, compelling in its frankness about its truly shocking subject: the damage to the human personality done by poverty, neglect, and abandonment.” I would accept all but the word “compelling.” Entering into this woman’s mind and following her experiences has not for me been compelling. Is this because I am male? I prefer to think not. I prefer to think it is her life of loneliness, of sacrifice, of abandonment, of deprivation that I found so difficult to relate to.

And, of course, I recognize that many woman have faced such situations in our society. But this author did not draw me into this life, even though it offered a shared human experience that included love and sacrifice, tenderness and yearning, and a sense of our spiritual destiny.

I am now curious about Home, yes, but not enough to place it ahead of other novels I wish to read. (February, 2017)

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